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The Route to War
The Ottoman Empire was a dominant force in world affairs for over half a millennium. At its height it had spanned three continents, reaching from the Persian Gulf to modern-day Algeria, and from the borders of Austria east to the Caspian and south to the Sudan. By the early years of the nineteenth century, however, terminal decay had set in; the Sublime Porte had already lost anything more than nominal control over its North African provinces, and its grip on the remnant of its European territory in the Balkans was being prised loose, thanks largely to the efforts of the power which had been its implacable enemy since the closing years of the seventeenth century and would remain so until her own fall in 1917: Russia.
Russia was a force to be reckoned with in the Balkans thanks to her self-appointed status as defender of the Christian faith, a role she had assumed following the fall of Byzantium on 29 May 1453. Despite forceful Turkish proselytising, two-thirds of the population of the Balkan provinces remained Christian, and provided the Russians with an adequate working mass. Dissidence flared up and was more or less put down on a regular basis, but in 1875 something altogether more serious began to take shape.
By that year, thanks largely to the Industrial Revolution having passed it by and left it with a balance-of-payments disaster, the Ottoman Empire was indebted to European banks to the tune of £200 million. Amortisation and the interest on the debt amounted to £12 million, half of Turkey's gross annual national product, and the Porte, nowhere near able to raise such a sum, reneged on its commitments. This immediately shut off all sources of credit, of course, and desperate for money, it levied swingeing new taxes in a forlorn attempt to raise it. Already the taxation situation was weighted heavily against non-Muslims (who were deprived of at least 40 per cent of their incomes); the new demands further exacerbated that, and the Russians wasted no time in exploiting the resulting unrest.
The Porte expected a backlash, no doubt, but it had every confidence of being able to weather it; that was a sorry miscalculation. Protests began in June 1875—in Bosnia-Herzegovina, as it happened, but could have broken out in any one of a half-dozen virtually identical locations—and were put down swiftly enough, but the Turks failed to stamp out the embers completely, and they were blown into life again the following year, this time in Bulgaria. By the spring of 1876 the Russian-inspired dissidents were ready to act, but the Ottomans, forewarned by an excellent intelligence-gathering apparatus, beat them to it and decided to make an example of them pour encourager les autres. By 25 April the Porte had unleashed its weapon of choice: irregulars known as bashi-bazouks, who settled the matter in their own inimitable fashion while the Turkish Army looked on. By mid-May the tragic affair was over. No attempt was made to separate the guilty from the innocent, and the most vulnerable suffered inordinately. There are no clear historical data for the number of people killed, and estimates range from 3,000 to ten times that, with 12,000 being generally accepted; 80 towns and villages were burned to the ground, and perhaps 200 more sacked.
The Turkish government's miscalculation was to underestimate just how badly a reversion to almost mediaeval standards of repressive behaviour would play in the West, and after the smoke, both literal and metaphorical, had cleared it found itself isolated and friendless (and with a new sultan at its head, Abdul Aziz having paid the ultimate price). Russia was always ready to force any such moment to its crisis; the events were a more than adequate casus belli, and the government in St Petersburg orchestrated events so that it was able to go to war against the Turks in the Balkans and the Caucasus the following year as an injured party-by-proxy. (For those who are interested in keeping score, this would be for the tenth time in almost exactly two centuries.) They met unexpectedly stiff resistance at Plevna (Pleven) in Bulgaria, but within months the tsarist forces were at the very gates of Constantinople, and were only restrained from entering the city by the combined efforts of the other Great Powers, Disraeli's government, sticking to established Palmerstonian principles, taking a prominent part. An armistice was reached, and followed by a conference at San Stefano, where Istanbul's international airport now stands; the resulting treaty saw Bulgaria granted her independence and awarded Northern and part of Eastern Thrace and most of Macedonia.
The other Great Powers (and they were not alone) were not amenable to what was seen as a move towards pan-Slavism, and convened the Congress of Berlin to reopen the matter in July 1878. While the resulting treaty watered down the effects of Russia's victory substantially, it left the Ottoman Empire in Europe in tatters, with Constantinople in possession only of a band of territory stretching from the lower Adriatic to the Black Sea. The rest of the Balkan states—Serbia, Rumania (that is, Wallachia and Moldavia), Montenegro and the northern part of Bulgaria—gained their independence, while Austria-Hungary took control of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Russia held on to what it had taken in the Caucasus. It also cost the Turks Cyprus, annexed by the British to act as a gatehouse to the Suez Canal, as the price of Britain's support at Berlin; that was to be the last time Britain took Turkey's part, thanks largely to the position adopted by the Grand Old Man of nineteenth-century British politics, William Ewart Gladstone. Gladstone's relentless revulsion at the Turks' behaviour in Bulgaria knew no bounds, and when he returned to power in 1880 at the head of a Liberal government he ensured that his antipathy became official policy. His opinion was to inform that of subsequent British administrations; it was still reverberating (in that of David Lloyd George) well into the 1920s.
This was a considerable departure from previous practice, for Britain's relationship with the Ottoman Empire had traditionally been almost paternal. When Ottoman interests wished to adopt western ways of doing business—in the creation of a National Bank, for example—they had naturally looked to London for expertise and the required capital (though there was a good deal of French money at work in the Empire, too, and not just in the Levant, which Paris considered its own sphere of interest). Now they did not, and the British financiers who suffered in consequence blamed Gladstone's campaign of vilification; as the military correspondent of The Times, their newspaper of choice, had it:
... under the magnetic touch of Mr Gladstone's withering oratory the cause of Turkey in England crumbled to dust ... The question for us has always been whether Turkey would be on our side or on the side of our rivals and potential enemies. Mr Gladstone and the Liberal party, unwarned by any British Moltke, decided the question in the latter sense. The warm and generous sympathy of our people with suffering races overbore the cold and calculating prudency of diplomacy which weighs beforehand the consequences of its acts.
For Germany the Turkish alliance was an excellent trouvaille. Magnificently placed astride three continents, inveterately hostile to Russia, whose overwhelming numbers lay upon the soul of the German strategist like a nightmare, embittered with England on account of the atrocity campaigns and the loss of Cyprus and of Egypt, and capable of serving as a weapon against Russia, Austria or England at will, the warlike Empire of Othman appealed with irresistible force not only to the soldier-heart of a military state but to the common-sense of German statesmen and to the pocket of the German merchant.
This was polemic journalism, of course, but not too far wide of the mark for all that, and did indeed reflect a radical shift in alignments. Unified only in January 1871, after Prussia had invaded France and defeated her in a campaign which lasted barely six months, Germany's main strategic impetus was to supplant her as the dominant power in continental Europe. The Dreikaiserbund (the 'League of the Three Emperors'), which allied Germany with Austria-Hungary and Russia from 1872, was the mainstay of that policy. When that alliance fell apart, following German efforts (at the Congress of Berlin) to thwart Russian ambitions to rearrange the Balkans, German interests were free to court the Turks, and fell to it with a will. Trade ties were forged, and slowly Berlin took on a new importance in Constantinople, a timely and welcome alternative to perfidious, sanctimonious London and crafty, self-righteous Paris. Coincidentally, during that same period Bismarck, in whom the real power in the nation was vested still, was persuaded to relax his policy of restricting his nation's interests to Europe, and this gave new strength to voices preaching expansionism.
Those in Germany, intellectuals and academics for the most part, advocating expansion into the Near East, received a boost when the old emperor died in 1888. Wilhelm II ascended the throne, and with him came an end to Bismarck's restraining influence; new voices had the kaiser's ear, among them Graf Paul von Hatzfeld, a long-time ambassador to Constantinople, who was instrumental in convincing him that Germany should make haste to step into the shoes England and France had worn for so long. Others came to be heard more publicly; amongst them were those who saw the Lower Danube and the Black Sea littoral as desirable target-territories, and others who looked even further afield, to the old 'fertile crescent' encompassing Syria and Mesopotamia, now fallen on hard times through centuries of mismanagement but capable, perhaps, of being returned to its former glory by the capacity for hard work and ingenuity which Germans possessed in considerable quantity. That resulted in a new set of policies and attitudes: the Drang nach Osten, the 'drive to the east' in search of territory into which to expand, a radical updating of the mediaeval Ostsiedlung, was stretched to include not just Eastern Europe but also the Near and Middle East, where Bismarck had been reluctant to tread for fear of upsetting British, French and Russian sensibilities.
It would be wrong to say that there was anything like an obsession with the Ottoman Empire in Germany, but there was certainly an undercurrent of feeling within the business community that no opportunity to penetrate the fabric of Turkish society should be missed, and that took the form of what we may call commercial colonialism, with German banks, particularly the relatively junior but very aggressive and fast-growing Deutsche Bank, taking considerable risks to secure business there, handsomely undercutting the interest rates offered by institutions in London and Paris. In 1882 Germany's arms and munitions industry received a boost when the sultan requested that a new military mission be sent from Berlin to advise on the modernisation of the Ottoman Army; under its guidance German arms manufacturers including Mauser, Loewe/DWM and Krupp received massive contracts to re-equip it. The young emperor played his part, too, he and his empress visiting Constantinople in state in 1889 (over opposition from Bismarck and to tremendous public acclaim), repeating the exercise in 1898 and proceeding as far as the Holy Land—where his triumphalist entry into Jerusalem on horseback was not quite so well received by the populace—and again in 1917.
It would be wrong, too, to suggest that British and French interests were not still well represented in Constantinople. The Turkish National Bank was (still) funded from the City of London, and all its senior executives, from its chairman down, were British. The French, too, were extremely active, and not only in Constantinople but also in Syria. However, by the time of the emperor's first visit, German commercial interests had achieved a great deal in the way of opening up new markets in the Ottoman Empire, and in the process they had expanded their horizons: now they were looking not just to individual deals but to 'infrastructure projects', to shape the country's still-primitive economy. They were relative latecomers to this sphere, but when they did take a hand, it was an impressive one, for they soon proposed a scheme which would provide the empire with a rail network linking Haydarpa?a station, across the Bosporus from Constantinople, with Mecca, by way of Damascus and Amman, and also with Baghdad, with the promise of an extension to the Persian Gulf. The railway was a keystone of German expansionist aspirations—and it is interesting to speculate upon the outcome, had it been completed prior to October 1914—but it was not the casus belli between Britain and Germany that some have tried to make it out to be, for the simple reason that the British government possessed the means to thwart Berlin's efforts at every turn. The dispute between Britain and Germany—which centred on, but was not limited to, the former's fear that the latter wished to develop a major port at the head of the Persian Gulf—was settled in Britain's favour in March 1914.
By the last years of the nineteenth century the Ottoman Empire was at the very limit of its endurance, and displayed the classic signs of a regime ripe for old-style revolution. Its wafer-thin upper crust was not just accustomed to uncountable wealth and unaccountable power but was literally ignorant of any other condition, while Sultan Abdul Mejid's largely banal reforms of half a century earlier had finally succeeded in producing a thinking officer/middle class, one which had a sense of purpose, and perhaps even one of direction.
The first cracks in the façade had appeared in 1889, when a reform movement began in the rather unlikely setting of the military medical college and soon spread to other institutions in Constantinople and among the important expatriate Turkish community in Cairo, always a hotbed of dissent. Understandably, it was a painfully slow process, but clandestine groups grew stronger and better organised, and eventually (though not until 1906) associated themselves into a body calling itself the Ittihad ve Terakki Cemiyeti (Committee of Union and Progress; CUP), widely known as the Young Turks. Wisely they based themselves not in Constantinople but in Salonika (Thessaloniki), away from the direct and determinedly prying gaze of the Sublime Porte.
One telling factor in the rise of the CUP was the attitude of the army. The sultanate was invulnerable while it retained its loyalty, but unfortunately for Abdul Hamid, from 1890 onwards increasing numbers of its officers, particularly those on the staff of III Army Corps in Salonika, began to ally themselves with the reformists' cause. The émigrés held a congress in Paris in 1902, and a second, five years later, at which the Young Turks, now at last with a formal structure, issued a declaration calling for the overthrow of the sultan. In the first days of July 1908, two young officers from III Army Corps, Niyazi Bey and Enver Bey, organised a small rising of their own, taking to the hills above Salonika with a small body of men. Sultan Abdul Hamid ordered them arrested, only to find their comrades unwilling to act against them; he sent a small force from Constantinople under ?emsi Pasha, who was shot and killed soon after he arrived on the scene, on 7 July. Two weeks later matters came to a head with the despatch of a telegram to the sultan announcing the army's intention to depose him unless he restored the limited constitution he had briefly put in place in 1876.
Abdul Hamid was unable to garner enough support to put down the threatened insurrection, and capitulated on 24 July; in elections which followed the CUP swept the board. However, the forces of reaction were not beaten yet. On 15 April the following year, inspired by a religious organisation known as the Mohammedan Union, which reviled the liberalisation which had followed from the transfer of power, and whipped up by students from the madrassas,21 the rank and file of I Army Corps, based in Constantinople, mutinied and staged a counter-coup which returned Abdul Hamid to absolute rule. It proved a brief restoration, for III Corps, with Mahmud Sevket in command (and the twenty-seven-year-old Lt.-Col. Mustafa Kemal as his Chief of Staff), now styling itself the Liberation Army, entrained for Constantinople, arriving on 24 April 1909, and the reactionaries wilted before it. Before that day was out the sultan had been deposed, and within three more he was aboard a train to Salonika, to be replaced, but strictly as a figurehead, by Mehmet V Resat, the next in seniority of his surviving brothers.
Excerpted from Eden to Armageddon by Roger Ford. Copyright © 2010 Roger Ford. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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List of Maps vii
List of Illustrations ix
1 The Route to War 1
Part I Mesopotamia
2 To the Garden of Eden 21
3 Besieged at Kut 39
4 To Baghdad and Beyond 67
5 On to Mosul 93
Part II The Caucasus, Armenia, Anatolia and Persia
6 Sarikami_ Faciasi 121
7 The Turks Fight Back 139
8 Anatolia Invaded 155
9 Armenia, Azerbaijan and Persia 181
Part III The Dardanelles and Gallipoli
10 To Constantinople! 203
11 Landings and Stalemates 215
12 A Failure of Leadership 247
Part IV Egypt, Palestine And Syria
13 Suez and Sinai 299
14 To the Gates of Palestine 311
15 Through Gaza to Judaea 333
16 By Way of Armageddon 363
Part V Aftermath and Conclusions
17 Defeat and Victory, Dismemberment and Renewal 395
Select Bibliography 477